Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Photographer's responsibilities to their subjects

Ages ago, I was a newspaper reporter and a photographer. Basically, pretty much any given day for just under a year there was a picture I took on the front page of our local paper. Which means I took an awful lot of pictures.

So this recent article by NPR caught my eye - What It Feels Like To Be Photographed In A Moment of Grief.

The article is well done, so I suggest reading it first because this will be entirely in response to that. Anyway, the point of it is that a woman was grieving at a religious statue in Newtown, Connectictut after the Sandy Hook shooting and a photographer took her picture. The picture was then sold and licensed to several news services, and published pretty much worldwide. All without the woman being contacted or talked to in any way.

Understandably the woman, Aline Marie, was upset about this. But to my surprise, she reacted very reasonably, saying that she didn't want to photo taken down, and she wasn't offended. But she did want people to understand her perspective on the situation and that she felt that somebody should have asked her permission.

The comments that come withe the article range across the board, but several said that photographers should "always" ask permission BEFORE taking a picture. Most agreed that photographers should speak to the subjects of their photos at some point. Though no one I saw really takes in the most important fact of the photo to me - which is that the "private" moment of grief is already heavily observed by cameras int he background, both photo and video. Which is part of what makes it a powerful statement, in my eyes.

Okay, so here's the way I see this. First - asking permission before taking a photograph isn't a good idea. While I never really took controversial pictures for the paper, my favorites are almost always candid ones where the subject doesn't realize I'm there. People act differently the moment that a camera is involved. Even if you tell them, "pretend I'm not here," "do what you were doing," "just act natural." Nothing will get you as good a picture as that candid moment before they realize you're there. I will never say that photographers should speak to their subjects before the picture.

However I will point out again that in this picture, Marie is already being observed on all sides and was likely aware of it. Which, again, is partially why it's a powerful image about this moment in our history. It can be a note about many different aspects of the moment. So again, I don't feel the photographer should have spoken to her before he took the picture.

But then we get to the question of after. Listen, when I was a photographer I was the world's WORST about talking to people after I'd taken the picture, even when they saw me. It was a benefit that my local paper was relatively well known and my picture was in it once a week so people probably knew me (and if they didn't know me from that, more than one of my subjects turned out to be people who knew my family, it was a small town). But on at least one occasion I had a man come into the newspaper office yelling and screaming because he was in a picture I took at the local fair that we had published in the paper. He threatened to sue, got belligerent, and generally made me want to hide. My desk was easily visible from the front desk of the paper, so I was in full view the entire time, though he thankfully didn't connect my name with me sitting there.

The editor came out and took care of the situation with a simple fact that most people don't realize: if you are in public or visible from a public area then any photographer is allowed to take a picture of you and use it. Especially newspaper photographers, they do not need your permission, they do not need your name, they can use it "to sell papers" and so on. This is a matter of legality, and most photographers know the ins and outs of it pretty well. I'm not as well versed in it anymore, but back then I was well aware of exactly what I could and could not do.

So, legally, this photographer is well within his rights. The AFP is within their rights to publish and sell the photo. And I, for one, don't want to see this changed. But was it moral or ethical? Is it moral to take a picture of somebody grieving? Or to be taking pictures at all at a time like this?

The photographer should have spoken to the subject. He should have gotten her name, found out if she knew anyone at the school, and shown her the picture (digital cameras give us that power) so that she could see first hand that his picture was respectful. He didn't because he was embarrassed and because he didn't want to intrude, and those are very valid feelings. I felt them constantly when I was at the paper, and in an instant like this those would only be heightened. Even passing her his business card would have been nice. Ethically, he could have done better. But in a situation like this, I can't give him an awful lot of fault for it.

But as for taking the picture itself? I believe we need to take pictures at times like these. We have to, because in ten years, twenty years, thirty years, this is what we'll have. Photography is how we record our history and we are a better people for it. These photos are able to capture more than words can, because they not only show you the emotion on the part of the subjects but they create an emotion in the viewer. We must take these pictures.

So lastly, I want to make a point about how people in these situations treat the photographers. I remember once I was sent to take pictures of a particularly bad car accident on the interstate, because that kind of thing is front page news in a small town. There were miles of people slowing down to stare as they drove past, and there were victims being airlifted out by helicopter from the scene of the accident. I went to a nearby service road, which was also backed up with onlookers and even people pulled open to stare and watch. But the second I took out my camera, I started getting heckled, honked at, insulted, and even flipped off.

Those people maybe didn't realize I was with the press, but even if they did I bet they would have thought it was disgusting. Though I don't see how it's any more or less disgusting than slowing down to gawk, especially considering I made sure to stay on the service road and no one working the accident was even aware of my presence. Maybe they didn't realize that we had a policy at my paper to never publish a picture of a victim, and so when I came back with my images I went through and deleted the ones where you could see even an arm or a leg that wasn't covered. We published a picture of the stretcher being loaded onto the helicopter where the patient was blocked from view by emergency personnel, even though I had better shots, because it was the most respectful one.

Did they send me on that assignment out of respect? No, they did it because pictures of wrecks sell papers and they wanted to sell more papers. But was there a way for us to do it properly and did we do that? Yes. So what should those onlookers have done when they saw me with my camera? First of all, nothing, there was no reason for them to say anything. But if they absolutely must speak, they should have simply said, "excuse me, do you really need to take pictures" or "I'm sorry, but why are you photographing this?" And I would have replied, "I'm with the newspaper, we'll do our best to be respectful of the victims. I would be happy to give you my editor's information if you'd like to speak with him more about it." We all could have moved on with our lives and maybe contemplated sensationalist journalism over our dinners that night instead of being insulted on the side of the road.